Longo Pleased with Running Back Depth
D'Vaughn Pennamon

Aug. 9, 2017

By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com

OXFORD, Miss. -- Balance and tempo are the foundation of new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo's scheme. 

A year ago, Longo's offense at Sam Houston State racked up over 4,500 yards through the air and over 2,000 yards on the ground. No team in the FBS accomplished that. 

When he arrived at Ole Miss, Longo inherited one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Shea Patterson and a plethora of weapons on the perimeter at wide receiver. It seemed like a perfect marriage given that Longo boasted the No. 2 passing offense in the FCS in 2016.

But the group of running backs have impressed Longo in camp, a group that will be key in making the Rebels' offensive attack appear more symmetric. The running back position is a core element of what can be a complex scheme, but Longo feels as if the group as a whole is coming up to speed the further they get into fall camp. 

"Coach (Derrick) Nix has done a fantastic job because it is a little more challenging mentally for running backs, because they are involved in every aspect of the offense," Longo said. "So I think that kind of handicapped them in the spring, but we are not seeing any of that now."

Jordan Wilkins is the clear-cut starter, and the Rebels received a bit of a scare on Monday when the senior running back hobbled off of the field with a knee injury, but turned out to be a minor knee sprain. 

"Jordan is fine," Longo said. "He probably could have run around a little today, but we're going to rest him and be smart with him."

The depth behind Wilkins is what has Longo excited, and it is one of the reasons Ole Miss is able to be cautious with getting Wilkins back onto the field.

"There are some other backs we are trying to develop," Longo said. "So we are going to use those extra reps as an advantage for us to get those other guys in there and take a look. We know what we have with Jordan."

D'Vaughn Pennamon, Eric Swinney and Eugene Brazley comprise a versatile group that could give Ole Miss a variety of different options out of the backfield. 

Pennamon played in nine games a year ago as a freshman, and carried the ball 20 times. He flashed his powerful, downhill style that is suited well for running in between the tackles.  

"He's deceiving," Longo said. "He is so big and so physical, but he plays with such low pad level. He is definitely a step ahead from where he was."

The quickness of Brazley is another look the Rebels can give out of the backfield. Longo labeled him as "our speed guy," while also noting that he's liked what he has seen from junior D.K. Buford.

The group has had its fair share of explosive plays during camp, but Longo looks at it beyond the surface level of yards gained. Ole Miss returns four backs that carried the ball in a game in 2016, and that is not counting Wilkins who missed the entire season.

"We go back in and break down at each run, and we want to know how efficient it is," Longo said. "It is like you carry the ball 10 times on power and gain 100 yards in the game. Well, 10 reps for 100 yards sounds pretty good, but what if one of them is 90 (yards) and the other nine went for 10 (yards)? What we want to do is be efficient."

Longo said he is unsure what the running back rotation will look like right now beyond Wilkins, and that has more to do with the number of different options he has more than anything else.

Ole Miss is now eight practices into fall camp, and that rotation will likely become a bit clearer the closer the Rebels get to their Sept. 2 season opener against South Alabama.

"The running back group, overall, is the most improved group," Longo said. "I just think mentally, they were a little slower in the spring and I think they are beyond that learning curve now. We are getting to see the talent now and see them play instinctively." 

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